The Smallsat Search for Low-Cost Launch
The building and exploitation of small satellites makes possible a diverse set of missions to satisfy academic, scientific, military and commercial needs. However, the U.S. community that develops small satellites -- or smallsats -- faces a perenial shortcoming of reliable, low-cost launchers -- a long-term situation that stymies smallsat evolution and wider adoption of the technology. This ongoing issue is to be spotlighted this week during the 20th Annual Conference on Small Satellites, held in Logan, Utah. The gathering is sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Utah State University.
"This has always been a chicken-and-egg problem," said Matt Bille, a research analyst and writer on microspace systems in Colorado Springs, Colo. "No one has succeeded commercially with a cheap, small booster because the market is inadequate to provide return on the initial investment. And then there's the market that isn't there because payload developers could never be sure a cheap, small booster would be available."
Bille said this conundrum could be solved in two ways: either a private investor is willing to forgo a near-term return on research and development costs or the government eats those costs.
Both of those scenarios are in evidence, Bille pointed out. Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of El Segundo, Calif., is developing launch vehicles intended to reduce the cost and increase the reliability of access to space. Also, there's the joint venture of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and U.S. Air Force called the Falcon Small Launch Vehicle program.
Hopefully, one or both efforts will produce an affordable booster that payload developers can rely on," Bille said.
Engaging the end user
Debra Facktor Lepore, president of AirLaunch LLC, headquartered in Kirkland, Wash., sympathizes with the chicken-and-egg problem involving small satellites and small launchers. "In our case, we're solving one of them ... by having DARPA and the Air Force as the seed capital ... providing initial funding. It puts us on a path to have credible steps toward a new launch vehicle," she said.
AirLaunch is developing their cargo aircraft-deployed QuickReach rocket under the DARPA/Air Force Falcon Small Launch Vehicle program, which is intended to allow U.S. government agencies to use small satellites with quick-response times for urgent military needs. The objective is to lob some 450 kilograms to low Earth orbit for $5 million dollars with less than 24-hours response time.
First flight test of the QuickReach rocket is scheduled to occur in 2008, she said. Several milestone drop tests of hardware have already been done to validate the launch concept.
NASA's Ames Research Center near Silicon Valley, Calif., announced July 26 that it has signed a memorandum of understanding with AirLaunch to explore collaborations in space launch systems launched from aircraft and payloads that cost less that $250 million.
"The primary user right now is military satellites. But we recognize, as does DARPA, that there are lots of payloads that want to get to space," Facktor Lepore said. "The real trick in all of this is engaging the actual end user," she said, "for the space community to start articulating how small payloads can actually contribute to a commercial, civil or military application."
Change the status quo
An emerging option that could help further smallsat progress is the growing number of U.S. spaceports, such as the New Mexico inland spaceport.
Work on the New Mexico facility already is under way -- a remote area near Upham that is favored due to its low population density, uncongested airspace and high elevation. An inaugural launch from the site is slated for September using a suborbital rocket sponsored by UP Aerospace. The firm's SpaceLoft XL rocket is front-loaded with a variety of payloads -- including university-built sensor hardware to be evaluated during the suborbital trajectory for future smallsat payloads bound for Earth orbit.
"We've taken a fresh look at all of the traditional cost-drivers of getting payloads into space, and have focused our engineering efforts to change the status quo," said Eric Knight, chief executive officer of UP Aerospace, Farmington, Conn.
Knight said some of the largest flight expenses are payload integration time, effort and engineering. To tackle these expenses, UP Aerospace has developed patent-pending systems that permit rapid and dramatically simplified payload integration -- systems that, in turn, would bring those associated costs down, he said.
UP Aerospace has interest in developing an orbital vehicle that follows in the contrail of the group's low-cost suborbital rocket. "We're making good strides on both the propulsion and vehicle-design fronts. The opportunity is very exciting," Knight added.
Knight advocates a regular dialog between the new breed of launch providers and the evolving smallsat community so both industries can mature rapidly with minimal missteps, he said.
"There's no sense developing a launcher that can't fulfill customer needs," Knight said.
There's confusion about what exactly is a smallsat, said John Garvey, president and chief executive officer of Garvey Spacecraft Corp. in Long Beach, Calif. -- an aerospace research and development firm focusing on cost-effective development of advanced space technologies and launch vehicle systems.
For the Defense Department and intelligence communities, a smallsat can be as big as 1,000 kilograms -- the mass of a small car, Garvey advised. "Since they have the money to fund projects like [the DARPA/Air Force] Falcon," he added, "that means small launch vehicles end up being the size of the [SpaceX] Falcon 1 ... and from an operational perspective ... that is small only when compared to an Atlas or a Delta."
In contrast, Garvey said, academic and entrepreneurial research companies working on smallsat payloads tend to think more in terms of one kilogram to 100 kilograms.
"My rule," Garvey said, "is that if your biggest graduate student or second lieutenant can't pick it up, it is not a smallsat."
On the launch vehicle side, Garvey warned that smallsat developers tend to give too much credibility to entrepreneurial launch companies. The smallsat community ties their projects on stated launch vehicle development plans and over-optimistic expectations.
"Furthermore, there appears to be minimal interest in publicly evaluating the performance of these 'new' rocket companies against their initial plans after several years of operation," Garvey observed. "There are small launch vehicle companies that have gone a decade or more without putting anything into the air, yet get treated and funded as if they are just as credible as everyone else. In other industries, companies either make it in a few years or go out of business. Not so in the launch arena."
Creating a Field of Dreams
The paucity of cost-effective and regular launch opportunities for smallsats has been holding the community back for decades, said Rex Ridenoure, president and chief executive officer of Ecliptic Enterprises Corp. in Pasadena, Calif., emphasizing that both attributes are needed.
Ridenoure said that academic and non-profit smallsat teams don't want to pay more than a few tens of thousands of dollars for their launches. Then there are the commercial and government smallsat teams looking for launch costs of, ideally, no more than a few hundred thousand dollars.
"And all groups would benefit from regular launch opportunities ... say at least a few slots per quarter. Those teams that lock in affordable, timely launches are the ones that get things done," Ridenoure said.
Recurring launch costs will be low only if payload interfaces and accommodations are kept relatively standard and fixed, Ridenoure suggested. "We can't continue to re-invent the interfaces and redo the accommodation engineering and analysis for each new payload that comes along."
What's needed, Ridenoure added, is to invoke lessons from the containerized shipping industry. That is, frequent rides plus multiple destinations plus standard interfaces and processes equals dramatically reduced delivery costs and progress. This requires smart and consistent collaboration between launch providers and payload developers, he said.
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